Texts: Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
As much as I knew why I was waiting and felt it was important, it was hard. I felt like something was lacking in my life. Here I was trained in a career but unable to do it. On top of that, I would sit in worship on the weekends hearing Steph’s internship supervisor preach, and I would be almost squirming in my seat because I felt like if I didn’t have the chance to preach, to share the good news, I would burst. I remember feeling like the prophet Jeremiah when he said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention the LORD or speak God’s name,’ then there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary from holding it in, and I cannot.”
Eventually, I found a job at a church near Madison as a “pastoral associate,” not ordained, but at least able to help preach, lead worship and teach confirmation. I loved that congregation, and I loved being able to do what I was trained for, but being there just made me even more impatient to finally be able to do the one thing I felt excited to do.
After we moved to Minnesota for Stephanie’s first call, I spent three months on the phone with the synod office talking about possibilities for a call of my own. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I was finally interviewed and called by Our Redeemer’s and Shepherd of the Hills.
After all the waiting and all the buildup, after all the training and preparing and hoping and longing, what I experienced those first few weeks of leading worship on Sunday mornings was not the relief or the excitement I expected, but rather uncertainty, almost fear, even. I remember watching myself in the mirror as I robed in my office, tying the cincture around my alb—like I had done hundreds of times before—and then putting on the new thing, the stole, and thinking, “What am I doing? I’m not a pastor.” I had the education, the training, the blessing of the Church, the call from the congregation, even the fancy piece of fabric to go around my neck, but none of that could make me a pastor. It took weeks—perhaps a month or two—of pretending that I was before I finally started to feel like it was true.
My story of imposter syndrome is about becoming a pastor, but I sometimes get the impression that many (if not most) Christians walk around feeling like impostors all the time. I get that impression from the comments people make, the offhand remarks about “darkening the doors” of a church building, or how I must lead such a holier life than they do, or how they couldn’t even begin to imagine preaching.
Or when people come into my office or call on the phone worried about a grandchild who isn’t baptized, or a family member who is going through a tough time and is doubting the existence of God. They ask me what to do, and when I suggest they talk about their faith, they are speechless. “I wouldn’t know what to say, Pastor.”
I used to think these things were products of outdated stereotypes about pastors, or of poor Christian faith formation by the church; but now I think it runs deeper. I find myself wondering how many people—how many of us here, in this very room—feel like imposters when it comes to faith. How many of us feel like we have nothing to offer our unchurched children? How many of us wrestle with doubt, and because of that, feel like we don’t really belong here? How many of us couldn’t even begin to imagine what you would say if you were asked to share the gospel?
Very often, we feel like people of little faith. We feel like we are here only to learn from the master in the white robe, or to be inspired by the stories of those people in the Bible who had it all together. We would rather leave faith to the professionals, because we’re all just amateurs... or imposters.
Did you hear Isaiah’s words today? Matthew heard them, obviously, and figured that the prophet was talking about Jesus. And yes, Jesus is God’s beloved Son, in whom God is well-pleased. Jesus is the one who God sent to bring justice to the nations, and through whom God has made a new covenant with all people. But did you really hear those words? They are addressed to “my servant.” Isaiah never specifies who that servant is—not in the section we read, nor anywhere before or after it.
In fact, the best guess we have for who “my servant” refers to is the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham. So, when Isaiah says these words, he’s saying them about all the people of God. That means us. When Matthew takes them and applies them to Jesus, he’s also talking about us—because we are the ones baptized in Jesus’ name, and as we will see in reading Matthew’s gospel, the Church is the community in which Jesus is still present, even were only two or three are gathered.
Look at your bulletins, and read Isaiah’s words again, and hear them speaking about you: “You are my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put forth my spirit upon you, and you will bring justice to the nations… You may not lift up your voice in the street, but you will faithfully bring forth justice… The coastlands wait for your teaching… I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you…”
If you don’t believe me, take out your hymnal and turn it to page 236. I’ll wait. This is the service for the affirmation of baptism. At the top of the page are the words of the baptismal covenant, the promise made between God and you at your baptism. Do you see what is written there? “To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.” “To serve all people following the example of Jesus.” “To strive for peace and justice in all the earth.” Does that sound like what Isaiah said? This is not just your promise to God, this is God’s promise to you: through YOU, God will do these things.
The truth is that the people of little faith are the very ones that move mountains. Jesus’ favorite name for the disciples in Matthew’s gospel is “you of little faith.” When Jesus talks to his disciples, he’s talking to us: to the amateurs, the imposters. But he’s also talking to the people he’s chosen, the people he has hand-picked to be right here, right now, doing what we are doing and being who we are.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, Matthew gives no indication that anyone else—even John the Baptist—saw what he saw or heard what he heard. This wasn’t a declaration to the crowd, it was a declaration to Jesus himself. But there is someone else who hears these words: you do, when you read this and remember that we share in Jesus’ baptism. We are there with him at that moment; the voice says also to us: “You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well-pleased.”
Just as Jesus wasn’t baptized to sit on his hands, neither were we. We know that we are not saved by our good works, but we are saved for good works: Christ shares new life with us in baptism so that we can go out and do those things in the baptismal covenant: to proclaim, to serve, and to strive. Not only are we called, we are equipped, we are capable. We get everything we need to do these good works right here at this table with these people.
I know this is true because I live it every week. You know that this last year has been hard for me; the compound stress of grief and transition and having to buy and move to a new house on top of everything; it’s left me drained. For these and other reasons, my spirituality is the least healthy it’s ever been. Most weeks, I have to fight to get a sermon to come, because I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say. And yet, somehow you still keep hearing what you need to hear. As much as I might like it to be, that’s not a testament to my skill: it’s a testament to God’s ability to use even burnt-out people to proclaim good news. I’m slowly getting better, but mostly because I can see that even at my worst, God won’t let go of me.
Here these words today: you are not imposters. You may be amateurs, but so am I, and so were the disciples, and so were 100 generations of Christians before you. You are God’s chosen servants, called and equipped to bring light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeons. We are all amateurs, people of little faith, people whose spirits were willing, but whose flesh was weak; and yet through us, God has changed the world. And God isn’t done with us yet.